TACOMA, Wash. — A judge here on Tuesday slashed by two thirds a nearly $100 million jury verdict handed down to the parents of missing Utah woman Susan Cox Powell at the end of July over the 2012 deaths of Powell’s two children at the hands of their father.
“My conscience is still shocked by the verdict size today, as it was on the day the verdict was delivered,” Pierce County Superior Court Judge Stanley Rumbaugh said.
Chuck and Judy Cox had sued the state of Washington’s Department of Social and Health Services in 2013, following the Feb. 5, 2012, murder-suicide involving their son-in-law, Josh Powell, and their grandchildren, Charlie and Braden Powell. The civil suit accused the department social workers of negligence in their handling of the Powell children, who died during a court-authorized supervised visitation at a home Josh Powell had rented.
During a weekslong trial earlier this year, which also endured a four-month delay due to a shutdown of the court over coronavirus concerns, witnesses testified in detail about the wounds each child had suffered at the hands of their father. Josh Powell had attacked his sons with a hatchet before setting fire to the home. Witnesses at the trial testified the children were conscious and suffering for roughly 10 to 20 minutes before they actually died as a result of smoke inhalation.
The jury ruled unanimously at the conclusion of the trial that the state agency had acted negligently. Their verdict levied a $98.5 million penalty against the state. Weeks later, attorneys for the state filed a motion requesting a new trial or a reduction in the damages.
In a hearing on that request, Rumbaugh said it was clear to him that the graphic nature of the killings had played into the jury’s decision.
“These were extreme and inflammatory facts that related to the killings of these boys,” Rumbaugh said. “They’re bound to bestir passion in the hearts and minds of any rational person.”
Rumbaugh stressed the jurors were likely not even consciously aware of their own “passion” in setting such a high dollar figure for damages.
“It’s not the size of the verdict alone, most certainly, that is an indicator,” Rumbaugh said. “It’s whether the size of the verdict in light of the evidence produced shocks the conscience of the court. And in this case, it does.”
As a result, Rumbaugh cut the jury’s award to $32.8 million. Or, he said, the parties could retry the case.
The reduction comes as a blow to the Coxes, who have said the high dollar damages awarded by the jury would serve as important motivation for the state of Washington to reform its child welfare practices. During the trial, witnesses for the Coxes accused the Department of Social and Health Services and its social workers of showing “reunification bias” by attempting to place Charlie and Braden Powell back with their father, in spite of Josh Powell’s status as the sole suspect in the suspected killing of his wife.
Susan Powell disappeared from the couple’s home in West Valley City on Dec. 7, 2009. Investigators believe she is dead but her body has never been located. Josh Powell was never arrested or formally charged with a crime related to his wife’s disappearance.
Josh Powell lost custody of his sons in September 2011, weeks after police served a search warrant related to Susan Powell’s disappearance at the Puyallup-area home of his father, Steve Powell, where Josh Powell and his sons were then living. During the search, police located voyeur videos created by the elder Powell, some of which included images of nude underage females.
In court filings at the time, police said they could not rule out the possibility that Josh Powell might have assisted his father with the creation of those videos, raising concerns about his fitness as a parent for Charlie and Braden. Caseworkers subsequently placed the children with their maternal grandparents, the Coxes, against Powell’s objections. Powell then spent several months attempting to regain custody.
That effort culminated in a Feb. 1, 2012, court hearing where a judge ordered supervised visitation to continue, while not objecting to a state plan to continue holding those visits at Powell’s rented home. However, the judge also ordered Powell to undergo a psychosexual evaluation and polygraph before she would consider allowing him full custody. Powell killed himself and the children days later, during one of those visits.